For many years, vinyl records were the primary choice of replay medium for the vast majority of music buyers and enthusiasts, and while the introduction of compact discs in the early 1980's, and the later move to digital downloads and streaming media initially seemed likely to make vinyl redundant, it remains a popular medium. Many specialist companies offer high-quality editions of back-catalogue releases as well as new and more recent products, and there is also a wealth of previously-issued material available on the second-hand market. This makes a vinyl-based system a fine choice for building a music collection, at all budget levels.
A turntable, in the context of this article, is the physical component of a vinyl replay system that rotates the record at the chosen speed, and which is fitted with a pickup arm and cartridge to track the grooves of the LP, and to convert the groove information into an electrical signal for later amplification. Any units with built-in amplification will not be considered, as these are more correctly termed 'record players'. Many turntables are designed with the ability to interchange pickup arms, allowing the owner to upgrade the arm, and/or the pickup cartridge as required. Many of these turntables are supplied without pickup arms when new, in a unit consisting of the plinth, motor and platter, and these could well be available on eBay in the same format, sometimes referred to as a motor unit or chassis turntable. A number of different arm mounting styles exist, and many turntables will be limited to one style of arm mount. Others have interchangeable arm mounting boards, allowing the fitment of different boards to accommodate different arms.
The first shellac records of the early 20th century were recorded at 78 rpm (revolutions per minute), and a limited number of turntables catering for this speed are still in production, along with the specialised cartridges for their playback. Since the introduction of microgroove vinyl records in the 1950's, three standard speeds have been in use – 16, 33 and 45 rpm. The vast majority of records in the marketplace are either 33 rpm LPs, or 45 rpm singles, in either 7 inch or 12 inch format. The buyer will need to consider their likely use of the turntable in order to determine what speeds are required. Many high-end turntables offer one speed only, since 33rpm LPs are the dominant format. 78 rpm records are the only ones which require specialised cartridges with different stylus profiles for their playback, due to the different groove profile. Anyone considering a turntable which offers 78 rpm as well as the other speeds should also consider the interchangeability of the cartridge and/or stylus, as the cartridge/stylus setup for 78s will not be suitable for 16/33/45 records, and vice versa.
Turntables come broadly in two chassis styles – fixed and suspended. In a fixed-style chassis, the bearing for the turntable platter is fixed to the plinth, as is the pickup arm. The motor can be on a flexible or rigid mount. On suspension-based turntables, the platter and pickup arm are generally mounted on a separate subchassis or frame, which can move relative to the plinth and motor. The two different approaches evolved from variations in the manufacturers' design philosophies, and the designs vary in sound quality and resistance to vibration. The style of turntable may have some bearing on transport arrangements and packaging, if buying in a distance sale. A fixed chassis turntable, with less moving parts, will be less susceptible to damage in transit. A suspended-style turntable, even when properly packed, will naturally be more at risk.
Broadly speaking, the method by which the motor transfers energy to rotate the platter – the drive style – is dominated by two styles; direct drive and belt drive. In direct drive turntables, the motor is mounted concentric with, and below, the platter, and acts directly upon the platter to rotate it. With belt drive turntables, the motor is mounted off the central axis of the platter, and is linked to the platter by a plastic or rubber belt. A number of vintage turntables use a third method, idler drive, where a rubber-edged wheel transfers motor drive to the platter.
The Pickup Arm and Cartridge
If the turntable is supplied with a pickup arm, and possibly a cartridge, these could be of the same make as the turntable, and were fitted with it when supplied as new, or they could be of some after-market type, fitted by a previous owner or supplier. The type of pickup cartridge, if fitted, should be considered along with the type of amplification it will be paired with. Moving magnet and moving coil cartridges have widely differing output voltages, and the phono input on the amplifier it will be matched with will need to match the cartridge type. Many amplifiers have dual-purpose or twin phono inputs, wherein the turntable is plugged into one or other input depending on type, or selected by switching.
The condition of the turntable will usually have to be judged by study of the pictures and description within the listing, although some sellers will allow prospective bidders to inspect the turntable before close of auction, and possibly demonstrate it. The general look of the turntable will give a good initial pointer as to its condition, and whether or not it has been well cared for by its previous owners. If a pickup cartridge is included in the listing, this will, in the main, be one of two kinds; either a moving magnet design, or moving coil. It will soon be apparent that the critical component of this, the stylus, is a very difficult item to photograph without a microscope. If the seller is unable to take this kind of photograph, it is usually expected that they will give some idea of the length of use of the cartridge, and in the case of higher-end types, this will usually be expressed in terms of the number of hours over which the cartridge has been used. This issue is more critical for a moving coil cartridge, as this type will not have a user-removable stylus, and repair of a damaged stylus requires either replacement of the whole cartridge, or repair by a specialised technician or company. This is less of an issue for a moving magnet cartridge, where, in the main, the stylus assembly can be removed and replaced quite easily by the owner.
Although the choice of price will largely be determined by the buyer's budget, it's probably best to purchase a turntable at a level consistent with the other components in the system. Although some commentators promote a philosophy that one cannot overspend on source components such as turntables and CD players, this philosophy is usually based on selecting components by auditioning prior to purchase, with demonstrations by dealerships. This is unlikely to be achievable in most online purchase situations, and the buyer should probably tailor the purchase level to the matching equipment in the remainder of the system. A great way to use the eBay system to pick up a bargain is to look for items in auction. eBay is primarily an auction site, and by really utilising the bidding system, overspending can be avoided.
Many turntables are delicate items of precision equipment, and many buyers and sellers aren't keen to trust them to delivery services where they may be treated with less care than they deserve. For this reason, and for reason of judging the condition as described above, it may be good policy to only consider turntables within easy reach, and for which the seller will allow a local pickup. Listings can be sorted on eBay by use of the drop-down sort box, from which 'Nearest First' can be selected.
The listing should be studied, or the seller queried, to determine if the seller will be supplying the turntable in its original packaging. If the turntable is to be posted or couriered, it will be best transported in the packaging which was designed for it.
Finding Turntables on eBay
From the eBay homepage, select Shop by category, and expand the pop-up category box with the See all categories button. Select Sound & Vision, and from the selection list to the left-hand side, Home Audio & HiFi Separates. From the Category list, select Record Players/Turntables. Since no subcategory division exists to separate record players from turntables within this category, it may be necessary to use a search term or selection by Brand, Model or Drive Type to limit the listing numbers. Drive Type selection might be made by Belt Drive, or Direct Drive.
Many music enthusiasts favour vinyl for a number of reasons. Many vintage turntables are available on the used market, along with more recent models, and consideration of the factors above should lead the buyer to a quality purchase which will give many years of listening pleasure.